It could have been anything — or everything — that the Hicks family saw when they first visited this little corner of Texas Hill Country in the early 1950s.
Perhaps it was the shallow Medina River, fringed with cypress and live oaks, flowing gently through the rangeland. Or the pockets of shaded, cool green pastures. Perhaps they saw the possibilities in the nearly 400 acres that formerly housed a Girl Scout camp.
And so Don Hicks and his parents, and soon, his new wife, Judy, staked their claim — and their future — in Texas. And for the next 50-plus years, the Hicks family would welcome dignitaries, sports and entertainment figures, and regular families from around the globe to this beloved piece of land — the Mayan Dude Ranch.
These days, Don and Judy are retired, but visitors to the Mayan — pronounced MAY-an — will still find a Hicks at every turn. Every single one of their 12 children would also stake a claim to this ranch that has become a treasure for the state of Texas and a true family business.
A dude ranch located in Bandera, Texas — the Cowboy Capital of the World — is expected to be all cowboy all the time, and the Hicks family delivers. Trail rides, western dance lessons, trick roping shows, wagon rides, barbecue suppers, live country music, and stories around the campfire are the kind of activities and entertainment that Mayan guests can expect.
It was from that cowboy culture that the Mayan originated.
Bandera, as the Cowboy Capital, was also home to a variety of big celebrations, such as rodeos and stampedes, that drew a large number of visitors.
"People were sleeping in the (rodeo) grounds outside, and that was not the kind of stuff we were interested in," family matriarch Judy recalls. "It was my husband who wanted to do a family-type thing."
So they began renovating the old Girl Scout cottages that already stood and building more units. They eventually built three lodges, increasing their capacity to easily accommodate dozens of families at one time.
They advertised for couples and families to visit cowboy country and have a safe, family-oriented place to stay. And the families came. Parents with their children. Grandparents with their grandchildren. Some of those children of yesteryear now bring their own children and grandchildren to experience what the Mayan has to offer, which is plenty.
"You have to keep trying to do better in everything. People demand a lot more, so you have to keep up with things to keep them busy," says Judy. "We have to change up activities because we have so much of same clientele every year."
Judy can speak to that, and every other part of running the Mayan, because she's done just about every job there.
"You name it, I've done it," Judy says before pausing and correcting herself. "No, the only thing I have not done, and did not want any part of, are the horses. But cooking, cleaning, working the gift shop — I've done every single thing that has been done here. We have to do it; you have no choice."
Everyone pitched in, including their children who eventually would number 12 — seven girls and five boys.
But because there are so many more jobs than there are Hickses on the ranch, they hire non-family to help run the Mayan. Most of the time, that works out fine, but on occasion, especially in the early days, it didn't, particularly when the hired help didn't possess the Hicks work ethic.
"At that time, I was out cleaning cottages and trying to run the gift shop and office, so it was difficult," she says. "I worked from 6 a.m. to midnight for years."
Their hard work resulted in success, of which the state of Texas took notice, and invited Judy and Don to help promote Texas tourism to Europeans.
"We were very fortunate in being accepted by the state. We went everywhere with the state of Texas," she says.
Though she's well into retirement now, Judy still finds herself washing dishes, picking up dirty linen, and taking out the garbage, despite her children's protests. She can't help herself; it's who she is.
DIVIDING UP JOBS
These days, the work is still there, but there are more hands to manage it.
Daughter Kelly Orion, for example, manages the office; Tim is CEO and helps serve dinner; Greg is the designated cooker of the outdoor breakfast. Other jobs include director of housekeeping, head chef, head of maintenance, and more.
"There's a job for everybody out here," says Shea Butler, one of the sisters.
The only two siblings not there are Rand, who was CEO until his death in 2009, and T.J., the youngest, who died in 1992 of complications from a car accident 10 years earlier. Still, the brothers' influence remains at the ranch and among the Hicks family, not only for their work there, but because they were so beloved by their family.
Stepping into his late brother's shoes as CEO has been an adjustment for everyone — especially for himself — but Tim Hicks is determined to maintain the standards started by his parents and continued by Rand.
"I'm trying to live up to the high expectations not only of Mom and Dad but of my brother, too," he says. "He had a way that was just amazing."
But, then, so do each of the Hicks siblings, who bring their individual strengths to their jobs. And what they all share is a welcoming spirit and, of course, the Hicks work ethic.
A large part of the Mayan's business is the convention market, so the Hickses built a convention center and dining rooms to accommodate conventions and meetings of all sizes.
Judy remembers one that was a little, well, extraordinary.
"For one of our Department of Defense conventions, we were told they would do a security check on everyone — run-of-the-mill kind of stuff — and then I noticed that a helicopter landed … and there was a lot of commotion," says Judy, who also remembers that she was too busy to stop to see what was happening.
"A gentleman went to speak to the group and we were later told it was the president, the first George Bush," she says. "That was definitely a high point."
But the heart of the ranch is the guest who quickly becomes a friend. And there have been many of them, most who returned so often for annual vacations that they became beloved friends.
"When they come back year after year, you become such good friends, and not so much guests," she says.
Even so, it's difficult at the end of a guest's stay, Shea says. "Sometimes we're in tears when they leave," she says.
One in particular stays in Judy's heart.
"There was this one gentleman who came to ranch for years. The last time he was here, he asked if he could see me and gave me a large gold coin," Judy says. "He said he couldn't think of anyone else in his life to have this coin that his father had given to him. He left and within a week, he had passed away."
There was a time when a young Greg declared that once he left home, he would never go back to the ranch because he'd had enough — a sentiment once shared by nearly all of his siblings.
"We had to take coffee and juice to the cabins every morning and clear tables," he says. "We worked 1½ hours every morning before school."
And they weren't paid for their work on the spot; instead, the money they earned was put away for college.
Judy and Don realized that their children wanted a change. "Most of the kids couldn't wait to get out of here," she says.
When they reached college age, most headed to Notre Dame University, their father's alma mater, and stepped into careers that were decidedly not ranch-related. One became a teacher and coach. Another was a college admissions director.
But little by little, one at a time, they made their way back to the Mayan to the warm embrace of family and to claim a stake in the ranch's future. Greg, a head athletic director and football coach, was the final sibling to return.
"I could go back to coaching and teaching in a minute, but I want to be here," he says, with a broad smile. "It's been a real gift."
Tracy recognizes the uniqueness and specialness of the place her parents created more than 50 years ago. "How blessed we are to be able to continue the ranch," she says. "The unity matters so much, because you don't see it much anymore. They say that only 5 percent of family businesses make it, and look at us."
Tim, the current CEO, always felt such a kinship to the land and the ranch that he was among those who never wanted to leave the Mayan.
"I always stayed here because I've always wanted to be here," he says. "I love the open space and I love what our mother and father started here. I've always thought it was the greatest thing in the world."
Greg loved his life before he returned, but he loves it even more at the Mayan.
His favorite reasons for being there, besides his family and the friends he's made, are watching the horses, seeing the sun set over the fields, and the wild turkeys that can be found throughout the ranch.
"Sometimes I have to pinch myself," he says. "I loved the camaraderie of coaching, but I love my family, and being a part of this is a blessing. I can't imagine life without the Mayan."
Out Here editor Carol Davis loves visiting the Texas Hill Country.